Tuesday, February 9, 2010

X360 look - Bayonetta

Admittedly I'm a bit disappointed in this game. Rather than save this sort of thing for the last paragraph I may as well put it out there right now. It's a great game and yet it has many glaring faults that keep it away from classic status. On the other hand it's still my current pick for the best 3D action game of this generation.

For those who prefer to live under a rock this game was directed by Hideki Kamiya aka the father of the 3D Action game. The genre essentially began with Devil May Cry and has spawned countless clones(remember that Van Helsing game? Blech), sequels(DMC3 & DMC4), and other titles that lifted many elements(Rygar PS2, Ninja Gaiden Xbox, God of War, etc). The games that came before Devil May Cry are best left not talked about as these days they're basically unplayable. In any case after doing games like PN 03, Viewtiful Joe, and Okami Hideki has come back to the genre that made him a name.

Bayonetta herself is a bit of an odd bird. She's the last of the witches though instead of a broomstick and a pointy hat she favors guns and an outfit made from her own hair. Like so many other videogame characters she has lost her memory and it's going to take a mysterious woman and thousands of dead angels to help jog it along. The game is broken up into 18ish stages that vary wildly in structure and design. Most are pretty basic as they involve exploring an environment and getting locked in rooms to fight the bad guys. There are also quite a handful that diverge wildly whether it's riding a motorcycle or a missile or just riding on top of something very large that needs to be killed. There's certainly a bit of variety to go around in Bayonetta's world.

The first highlight of this game is how Bayonetta controls. The running and jumping stuff is solid but where she really shines is in her dodging. With a simple tap of the button she can dodge almost anything whether she's standing or in mid-air. This lends her a wealth of freedom that she'll need to take full advantage of as attacks come quickly and from every direction. Over time she'll gain the abilities to turn into a panther to get around quickly and a crow to fly. Further rounding her out is a taunt that can be used to enrage her foes. Enraged foes hit harder and faster but they also give more magic and more points.

The weapon system is the next highlight. Bayonetta can equip weapons on both her hands and feet and there is an attack button for each. There are several weapons to choose from and while some show similarities in that she uses a lot of the same attack strings there are special attacks that can be triggered by holding down the attack button at a particular moment. Again there is a lot of freedom in what weapons to use as all of them can be combined in interesting ways which helps to keep the combat fresh.

The weapons are only a part of how our heroine deals with angels though. The hair isn't just for show since at the end of combinations a hair weave attack can trigger which will really clear out foes. There is also a magic gauge that can be used in a variety of ways. There are torture attacks which essentially work as finishing moves for weaker enemies or major damage on tougher foes. There are also a handful of magic attacks that offer a number of uses. The challenge with magic though is that while hitting foes can fill the meter getting hit can cause the meter to drain.

One thing I hate about combinations in 3D action games is that I get all these neat combos to use but I can never finish them because the enemies are so aggressive and numerous. Bayonetta isn't tied down by this as she has access to a dodge-offset. It's a bit tricky to use at first but its usefulness quickly becomes apparent as the player can save that last most devastating hit of a combo for a particular moment and still dodge attacks. While it takes awhile to use properly its one of the more impressive features of this game.

As if all of that wasn't enough Bayonetta is also capable of triggering witch-time. By dodging an attack at the right moment or through a number of other factors everything will slow down while she speeds up. Like with similar tools in other games the usefulness of this is obvious. However it's not something to be relied on as the hardest difficulty takes it away entirely. Think of it as a sort of practice mode.

Aside from the weapons Bayonetta can also equip a number of accessories. These are not your garden-variety "+10 health" nonsense either. These items can make impressive changes in the way the game is played. My personal favorite is something called the Moon of Mahaalaka...(yeah I butchered that spelling). What this does is it allows the witch to parry. Parrying is incredibly simple and when performed at just the right moment a counter-attack can be performed for good damage, lots of witch-time, and even a health bonus. There are quite a few accessories although ones of the game-breaking variety(like one that allows the player to play one-handed) are a severe detriment to the score.

Where the game shines its brightest is in combat with regular foes. The variety in them is decent and while some may serve as combo fodder there are others that can be a bit of an ordeal to face at first. At its best this game does an incredible job of showing off Bayonetta's robust arsenal of weapons and moves as well as her excellent evasive skills. The combat is always fun and exciting and taking down a number of tough foes without a scratch is attainable on even the hardest setting and can feel quite rewarding.

The problem is though is that when Bayonetta is not fighting it's not so great. I'm not sure what prompted the design of a number of the stages in this game but their exclusion would have only improved the overall quality of the game. If you've already played through this title you know full well that I'm talking about the vehicle sections. I can't even type the words "vehicle sections" without my mouth suddenly tasting like phlegm and assorted other nasty bodily fluids. In Bayonetta we have a motorcycle section and a missile section. The problem with the motorcycle section is that it feels unpolished and slapped-together. It's like something Sega would have included in a D-grade Sonic game. It's not particularly frustrating or so horrible that it ruins the game but it has no reason to be there as it offers nothing that hasn't been bettered by arcade games from the 80s. Next we have the missile section. This is an obvious nod to Space Harrier but again nowhere near as good. As a bonus the boss fights there tend to really drag. The thing is this game has a fondness for Sega references which is fine but to develop an entire stage around an old game and to do it no justice at all just feels like amateur-hour.

Aside from the vehicle sections there are a number of other parts of the game that don't consist entirely of combat. This time I'd like to recognize our good friends QTEs and button-mashing. These put a chalky taste in my mouth which leaves me especially bitter. The QTEs are of the instant-death variety though they're exceptionally easy. See this is what I don't get. If they're so easy why put them in there at all? Button-mashing is just a nuisance most of the time as it has to be done for every torture attack, a few QTEs, and some special attacks when dealing with that mysterious woman. Button-mashing has never been fun and most of the time it doesn't even make sense in this game or it's more beneficial to avoid it entirely unless you're using some cruddy 3rd party controller with turbo buttons.

Another non-combat aspect that just doesn't work is platforming. Thankfully in mid-air Bayonetta controls several times better than the average 3D action hero but again why have the platforming at all? I'd like to think it is worthwhile if used in combat but the few encounters that actually require platforming are terrible. The biggest offender is one that deals with these three enemy ships. Now these guys have homing missiles that come in swarms, deadly lasers, and claws that hold Bayo in place. The funny thing is the most dangerous aspect of them is that they must be fought over a bottom-less pit. Damaging them is simple enough as it just requires the witch to land on top of one and wail away at their weak-point. In practice however it's so easy to miss the mark that it just leads to falling into a pit several times over. Sure it only costs life instead of a life but yeah it's just all-around bad news.

Now when I said the game shines at its brightest it was during combat with regular foes. Bosses in Bayonetta are anything but regular as they are absolutely huge suckers with multiple weak-points that must be taken down. Problem is for all their size and sense of grandeur they are weak and bloated. What most of them really boil down to is running around and slashing up all of their weak-points while dodging whatever huge attack they're likely to throw out. These are the kind of guys that should have had regular foes join them in battle. For one it would add some challenge on the harder settings and for two it would create more interesting situations over the course of the fight. The best bosses in the game all belong to that mysterious woman as she fights just like Bayonetta. It's kind of sad since so much work was put into making the big guys so impressive.

The most unfortunate aspect of Bayonetta is that the scoring system is broken. The game employs a ranking system that judges players on how fast they complete each area, for how much damage they take(obviously it's best to take none), and their score through performing combos. While the scoring system seems impressive enough with different point values attached to every little attack it is as of right now pretty much broken. A glitch involving the rocket-launcher weapon Kilgore is available and abusing it will guarantee a maxed-out score for any area of the game where it could be attainable. A big-part of the replay value in this game is in the ranking system and to have the scores(and the subsequent leaderboards they're posted on) be broken through an exploit pretty much ruins at least that aspect.

That's not to say there's not much of a reason to replay the game as it's completely worth the 50 or so hours it'll take to get everything. The Lost Chapter is an excellent additional mode as it is essentially nothing but combat with regular foes. To add to this there are a huge number of weapons to collect/use and even a couple additional playable characters. Even with the Kilgore glitch there is still a ton of depth to the combat system and coming up with interesting combos and new ways to get through each encounter can lead to even more time spent.

So while the flaws are there and very apparent Bayonetta remains absolutely brilliant. Something as simple as a sequel can fix all of these flaws easily I'm sure but I think in the future we can expect something even better that'll be heralded as the future of 3D action games. For at least this moment Bayonetta is the present of the genre and certainly worth the time.

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